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Despite diminishing print platforms and physical communities, Indian poets have woven a wide web online

In 2006, Giriraj Kiradoo found himself in the “somewhat melancholic” town of Jodhpur, teaching English to management students at the ICFAI Business School. Since the previous year, Kiradoo had been the creative head of the Jaipur cooperative Sahridya Samvad, and, while rifling through old entries for a writing competition at a local college, happened to chance upon the work of Rahul Soni. “It was friendship at first sight,” Kiradoo, who now teaches at the Mody Institute of Technology and Science in Laxmangarh, told Time Out. Two years later, Kiradoo and Soni launched Pratilipi, an online, multilingual literary magazine that publishes fiction, criticism and poetry in its quarterly issues.

In the last four-and-a-half years of its existence, the webzine has had “12 issues, 400 authors [in] 30 languages” and two lakh hits. Besides partnering with Samanvay, a festival of Indian languages hosted by the India Habitat Centre, now in its second year, Pratilipi has held two editions of Kavita Samay in Gwalior and Jaipur, bringing together over 100 Hindi poets and critics. As a publishing imprint, Pratilipi has released three books, including Home From a Distance, an anthology of Hindi poetry in English translation, and a Hindi version of Nirupama Dutt’s Punjabi poems. Yet the editors and advi­sers hardly ever meet, and for all practical purposes, remain a “typical, cyber-era outfit”.

Pratilipi is not the first Indian magazine to have kept its wares online, but its editors’ enterprising spirit has ensured that it has become a bit of a star in the Indian literary constellation. Other cyber literary outfits – Muse India, Kritya, P4Poetry and Pyrta, which run the gamut from blank to bland verse – have a sure, if slightly fainter, footprint. These webzines and e-journals help fill in a crucial gap when all but an elegy has been written for the poetic form. Online poetry is not just an example of natural evolution, a marker of “everything’s moving online” – it appears to be the only platform where the form is truly thriving. Because beyond anthologies, mainstream poetry publishing is not considered practical either by publishers or by writers, albeit for different reasons. Apart from a few scattered events like Delhi Poetree or Caferati readings, slam poetry sessions and the odd mushaira, there are fewer avenues than ever before for physical expression. And offline conversations around poetry have languished too.

An online forum that lived fast and died young was the fizzy Fresh Lime Soda, started by author and TED fellow Parmesh Shahani during the teething years of the Internet in India. Headquartered in Mumbai, Fresh Lime Soda solicited art, photography and poetry submissions from across the country and the world, run­ning from 1999 until 2003, when Shahani went off to MIT. “It was one of the first attempts at creating a serious Indian news presence on the web,” Shahani told us. “It was very significant for young people who grew up in the first phase of the Internet.”

Though it may not have been the direct inspiration, the Fresh Lime Soda model would be replicated by other ventures like Pyrta and Kritya. Author Janice Pariat envisioned Pyrta (the Khasi word for “to call out”) with a group of writers and poets in 2010 as a platform for writers from Shillong. Now, however, Pyrt contributors are spread across the country. “Writers write the books they want to read, and Pyrta was the sort of literary journal I wanted to see,” Pariat told us over the phone from Guwahati. Her interests in literature and art dovetailed with the journal that invites rolling submissions for prose and photography as well.

Shillong is as far removed from the literary wellspring of Delhi as Thiruvananthapuram, from where Rati Saxena started the bilingual poetry journal Kritya in June 2005. When Saxena moved south from Rajasthan in the 1970s, her mentor, the Malayalam poet Ayyappa Panikkar, encouraged her to start a “[literary] centre away from the centre”. “Everyone had begun to say, ‘kavita chup ho gayi hai’ [poetry has gone silent],” said Saxena, who has translated the work of Panikkar, Balamani Amma and Kamala Das. The launch of the e-journal was accompanied by a poetry festival, that has since gone on to be held at Chandigarh and Mysore, with poets from Korea, Ireland and Iran, apart from regional ones.

Regional literature got a leg-up from Muse India as well, launched in 2005, as “a quality web journal that would showcase Indian literature to a global readership on the Internet,” according to managing editor Surya Rao. Muse has sections on literature from across the country, compiled by contributing editors. Rao doesn’t agree that conversations around poetry have declined though. “There were always groups, [but] mostly small and informal, that would discuss poetry,” he told us. “A number of ‘little magazines’ all over the country publish poetry, and other works of literature, but these have highly restricted circulations.”

That just may be an indicator of our reception of magazines – literary or otherwise – in general, because with 15,000 members, the popularity of P4Poetry is through the roof. With no real curation, members can post compositions in Hindi and English. While the poems will never set literary circles afire, they do generate enough ads to sustain the site. “We get emails from members expressing so much gratitude that they have found a community that they treasure,” said founder Renu Rakheja. “P4Poetry is like their morning tea; like their lifeline.”

It is easy to put Rakheja’s hyperbole down to poetic license, but it is hard to argue with the frequency and enthusiasm with which the forum’s members post. With one print anthology already under its belt and another one in the pipeline, P4Poetry certainly is on to something. Because even if it continues to flow back to conventional print publishing, online is the new mainstream for poetry.

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By Karanjeet Kaur on October 26 2012 1.23pm

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